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Chinese soft power : Unveiling the silk road of influence

Laithangbam Kumarsanu Singh *



Introduction : Soft power, a term coined by Joseph S. Nye, refers to a Nation’s ability to achieve its objectives by leveraging influence and attraction through culture, values, policies, and institutions, thereby strengthening relationships and shaping international dynamics. In the landscape of global politics and cultural influence, China’s ascent as a dominant player cannot be understated.

While economic prowess and military strength are often the primary metrics of a Nation’s power, the concept of soft power has emerged as a crucial dimension in understanding China’s global reach. Since the late 1990s and particularly in recent years, the concept of soft power has garnered increasing interest within China’s strategic studies community. This essay endeavours to delve into the multifaceted realm of Chinese soft power, focusing particularly on its manifestation along the historic Silk Road.

Throughout history, the Silk Road epitomizes a vibrant exchange of goods, cultural artifacts, and religions among nations, empires, and civilizations from East to West. Indeed, Art, Silk, Buddhism or Christianity have travelled and merged into new contexts, creating syncretism. The old Silk Road has been renewed in contemporary geopolitics as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through land and maritime networks.

Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the BRI aims to foster infrastructure development, trade, and cultural exchange across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Beyond its economic objectives, the BRI serves as a potent tool for projecting Chinese soft power on a global scale.

At its core, soft power encloses a Nation’s ability to attract and accept rather than coerce, shaping preferences and norms through culture, ideology, and diplomacy. China’s approach to soft power is deeply rooted in its rich history and cultural heritage. With a civilization stretching back thousands of years, China boasts a wealth of traditions, arts, and philosophies that fascinate global audiences.

From the enduring appeal of Confucianism to the global popularity of Chinese cuisine, the film industry, tourism, and martial arts, China’s cultural exports serve as passage for disseminating its values and narratives worldwide. Xi Jinping has identified Chinese culture as an asset which can be promoted to bring about a better global public opinion of China.

The Chinese Government actively engages with the diaspora to promote its soft power objectives. Through initiatives like the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China seeks to harness the influence of overseas communities for cultural diplomacy, economic cooperation, and political advocacy. The Government provides support and incentives for diaspora engagement, including scholarships, cultural exchange programs, and investment incentives, to strengthen ties and leverage the diaspora’s potential as a soft power asset.

Moreover, the Chinese Government has strategically invested in cultural diplomacy initiatives, such as Confucius Institutes and the promotion of Chinese language education, to deepen its soft power abroad. These efforts not only facilitate people-to-people exchanges but also cultivate goodwill and understanding towards China.

Problems

The pursuit of soft power by China is not without its obstacles. One of the primary challenges stems from the underlying tension between authoritarian governance and the promotion of cultural openness. The Chinese Government’s tight control over information and expression often clashes with the principles of cultural exchange and diversity that support successful soft power initiatives.

Furthermore, the perception of China’s soft power efforts as mere propaganda tools weakens their effectiveness. Uncertainty regarding the authenticity and sincerity of Chinese cultural outreach programs hampers their ability to resonate with global audiences. Additionally, geopolitical tensions and concerns over China’s assertive behaviour in international affairs have cast a shadow over its soft power endeavours, breeding mistrust and resistance in some quarters.

Causes

1. Economic Expansion and Infrastructure Development : One of the primary causes driving Chinese soft power along the Silk Road is the economic expansion facilitated by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s investments in infrastructure projects, such as roads, ports, and railways, create tangible connections between China and partner countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. These investments not only boost economic development in recipient countries but also foster a sense of dependency and gratefulness towards China.

2. Cultural Diplomacy and Exchange Programs: China’s deliberate efforts to promote its culture and language through initiatives like Confucius Institutes and cultural exchange programs contribute significantly to its soft power projection. By facilitating cultural exchanges and language education, China heightens its visibility and influence abroad, fostering goodwill and positive perceptions among international audiences.

3. Narrative Shaping and Propaganda: The Chinese Government employs various propaganda tools to shape global narratives and enhance its soft power. Through State-controlled media outlets and social media platforms, China circularises its preferred narratives and suppresses dissenting voices, presenting itself as a benevolent global leader committed to peace, development, and cooperation.

Effects:

1. Increased Influence and Geopolitical Clout: Chinese soft power initiatives, particularly through the BRI, have bolstered China’s influence and geopolitical clout on the world stage. By investing in infrastructure projects and promoting cultural exchange, China extends its reach and solidifies its position as a key player in shaping global governance and economic development.

2. Shifts in Global Perceptions and Norms: China’s soft power efforts contribute to shaping global perceptions and norms, influencing how the world views issues such as governance, human rights, and development. Through cultural exports and diplomatic initiatives, China promotes its own values and narratives, challenging Western-centric perspectives and advocating for alternative models of governance and development.

3. Controversies and Backlash: Despite its soft power successes, China’s assertive approach to soft power projection has also sparked controversies and backlash. Concerns over debt traps, environmental degradation, and social disruption associated with BRI projects have led to scepticism and resistance in some recipient countries. Moreover, China’s authoritarian political system and censorship practices undermine the authenticity and credibility of its soft power efforts, eroding trust and goodwill in certain quarters.

4. Competition and Rivalry : China’s rise as a soft power player has intensified competition and rivalry with other global powers, particularly the United States. As China expands its influence through the Silk Road, it increasingly competes with Western powers for dominance in shaping global narratives, alliances, and institutions, leading to heightened geopolitical tensions and strategic manoeuvring.

Analysis

Chinese soft power along the Silk Road represents a multifaceted strategy aimed at enhancing China’s global influence, fostering economic ties, and promoting its cultural identity on the world stage. However, a nuanced analysis reveals both opportunities and challenges inherent in China’s soft power approach.

On the other hand, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offers immense opportunities for economic development and connectivity, particularly in regions historically underserved by infrastructure investments. By financing and constructing critical infrastructure projects, China positions itself as a key partner in driving economic growth and development in recipient countries. This economic leverage not only enhances China’s geopolitical influence but also facilitates the expansion of its trade networks and access to vital resources.

Furthermore, China’s emphasis on cultural diplomacy and exchange programs, exemplified by initiatives like Confucius Institutes and language education programs, serves to deepen cultural ties and enhance mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world. Through the promotion of Chinese language, arts, and traditions, China seeks to foster a global community with shared values and aspirations, thereby bolstering its soft power and influence.

However, China’s soft power ambitions are not without challenges and controversies. Critics argue that China’s authoritarian political system and censorship practices undermine the authenticity and credibility of its soft power efforts, tarnishing its image and eroding trust in its intentions.

Moreover, concerns over the environmental and social impact of BRI projects, as well as allegations of debt traps and neo-colonialism, have fueled skepticism and resistance among some recipient countries and international observers.

Additionally, China’s assertive approach to soft power projection has fueled competition and rivalry with other global powers, particularly the United States. Some countries may seek to balance their relationships between the US and China by participating in BRI projects. This could complicate US efforts to rally allies and partners in pursuit of a common geopolitical goal.

Conclusion

The Silk Road of influence woven by China’s soft power initiatives encapsulates both the promise of economic prosperity and the menace of geopolitical competition.

As China expands its global footprint through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and cultural diplomacy programs, it emerges as a formidable player in shaping the form of the 21st-century world order. However, the path to Chinese soft power supremacy is fraught with challenges and complexities.

While the BRI presents unprecedented opportunities for economic development and connectivity, it also raises concerns about debt sustainability, environmental degradation, and social disruption in recipient countries. Similarly, China’s cultural diplomacy efforts face scrutiny over issues of authenticity, censorship, and ideological coercion, undermining their effectiveness in fostering genuine cultural exchange and understanding.

Moreover, China’s assertive approach to soft power projection has fueled competition and rivalry with other global powers, leading to heightened geopolitical tensions and strategic manoeuvring. As China vies for dominance along the Silk Road, it encounters resistance and pushback from rival powers and sceptical recipient countries, underscoring the inherent complexities of soft power dynamics in a multipolar world.

In navigating these challenges, China must strike a delicate balance between assertiveness and cooperation, addressing legitimate concerns while leveraging its economic and cultural strengths to build bridges and foster mutual understanding. Ultimately, the Silk Road of influence offers both opportunities and pitfalls for China’s soft power ambitions, shaping the trajectory of global governance and cultural exchange in the 21st century.


* Laithangbam Kumarsanu Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on March 13 2024 .



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